'For whom the bell tolls'

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Oklahoma has eight executions scheduled in January - more than any other state in the nation. This is one reason Bishop Robert Moody chose to urge the Episcopal churches in his diocese to mark each event by ringing their church bells.

With that action, he joined a new national initiative seeking to have religious organizations - churches, monasteries, temples, and synagogues - toll their bells whenever an execution occurs anywhere in the United States, to call attention to the fact and encourage people to pray for those executed, their victims, and the families of both. The "For Whom the Bell Tolls" campaign asks churches without bells to hang a banner on their buildings or tie black ribbons to the doors.

"This seems a quiet, nonpolemical way of bringing the gravity of the situation before people," Bishop Moody says. "It asks us to be observant and prayerful, and to bear witness to the fact that a human life is being taken."

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The criminal-justice reform group promoting the effort - Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants - hopes to spur public support for a moratorium on the death penalty in the 38 states that now allow capital punishment.

Gov. George Ryan (R) stopped executions in Illinois a year ago after the innocence of several death-row inmates was proven; other states have not yet followed suit. But Americans have begun to debate the issue as inequities and incompetence in the system have come to light.

Sister Dorothy Briggs, who is coordinating the campaign (www.curenational.org/bells), says groups are actively tolling in 26 states so far.

Sister Rita Ann Teichman of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth in Kalamazoo, Mich., says their congregation is tolling for each US execution and is working to get other Catholic and Protestant churches in the area involved. "It's important to continue to raise consciousness," she says.

The death penalty remains a troubling issue for many, however. In Chicago, Sister Barbara Bosch, provincial head of the Felician Sisters, says members of her congregation had deep discussions about it before they made their decision to participate. And they decided to think also about how to attend to the needs of victims' families.

And although the Episcopal Church at both the national and Oklahoma levels officially opposes the death penalty, Moody found that his letter "precipitated a tremendous amount of conversation" in several congregations, some very heated. "Not every Christian or Episcopalian thinks the same way," Moody says, but thoughtful discussion is an important step.

"Executions are done in the name of the people of the state," he adds, so it's well worth considering more deeply what we really want. "Frankly, there are criminals for whom you could make a pretty good case that execution is appropriate, but my concern is what it does to our own spirituality. We ought to find a better way."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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